Arthurian Variations (Part II)

We’ve seen that the Arthuriad has generated a wide variety of retellings over the years.  What makes these legends so adaptable, and so congenial to storytellers of all kinds?

To begin with . . .

A few reasons leap out at us.

As we’ve seen before, it helps if there’s no one canonical version of a story.  Without a single clear source, later authors are free from the need to conform to the “classic” tale.  The Wikipedia article says outright, “there is no one canonical version” (¶ 3).

It’s true that Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is the central reference point, at least in English.  But his version is so far from current norms that it would be hard to try and reproduce it faithfully—as Steinbeck perhaps found.  Malory serves more as a library or resource for story elements that can be adapted and recombined at will.

The sheer breadth of that source material is a second factor.  All those knights, all those adventures, even the numerous events of the main storyline:  the Arthuriad is its own ‘Pot of Story,’ a stew full of nutritious narrative elements.  “It held a treasure for every seeker.”  (The Mabinogion, tr. Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, Everyman’s Library, 1949, 1974, Introduction, p. xxx.)

The story also occupies a colorful historical setting, whether in the plate-mail-and-castles “high road” approach, or in the more historically plausible “low road” approach.  Many readers have a fondness for this quasi-medieval environment—which is why versions of that milieu are used in so many fantasy stories and games.

A Plethora of Characters

In particular, the Arthuriad is filled with strong and interesting characters.  An author can focus on, say, the character of Percival, or Morgan le Fay, or Gawain, and take off from there.  Or she can ring the changes on the main story by redefining the characters and their relationships, as we saw in the examples from Part I.

Arthur himself can be played in many ways.  Generally he tends to have a certain innocence, a certain earnestness and candor about him.  But this can be realized in the psychologically wounded but charismatic leader of Wolf’s tale, in the essential simplicity of the idealist in White’s Once and Future King, or in the clever but dedicated warleader of “King Arthur.”  (It can also be seen in the weak and waffling character of Lerner & Loewe’s “Camelot”—if we include what I consider a failed implementation.)

Other characters are equally mutable.  Mordred is subtle and evil in White; he’s an innocent and rather likable kid in Wolf.  Lancelot contains enough contradictions in himself—loyal friend, betrayer of a marriage, devoted lover, peerless warrior—that an intense character study of this champion is almost unavoidable if we let him into the story at all.

Guinevere is a particularly tricky case.  It’s hard to play her as truly admirable—since so much of her traditional role lies in being untrue, at least after a fashion.  (She’s untrue to Arthur, but true to Lancelot, and the story seems largely willing to forgive the first in light of the second.)  If she isn’t handled carefully, she’s likely to default into being silly, or weak, or fickle.  The challenge of giving her a better role may appeal to an author.  Both books and films have taken up that challenge, though I’m not familiar with those treatments.

Compelling Drama

The story of Arthur contains many events that lend themselves to high drama.  For example—

His origin.  It seems essential for Arthur’s ascent to the throne to exemplify the theme of the lowly raised high, the rise from humble beginnings to glory.  His childhood is modest, in one way or another.  In the traditional formulation, Arthur doesn’t know who he is until he is almost grown, and it may take a magic token (the sword in the stone) to demonstrate his true nature.  As a result, Arthur generally has the humility that I’ve argued characterizes our archetype of the Good King.

This Cinderella-type story appeals to our fondness for the underdog, and the reversal of fortunes is inherently dramatic.  There are a lot of possibilities for how that revelation occurs, and how Arthur and those around him react.

Lancelot, Guinevere, Arthur (King Arthur)The love stories.  An eternal triangle necessarily involves passion, betrayal, and drama.  But there are a lot of possible ways to construe the relations among Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot (along with Morgan and other possible players, as we saw last time).

In the central love story, Arthur tends to lose out.  As White puts it (Book Three, beginning of ch. 45):  “Merlyn had not intended him for private happiness.  He had been made for royal joys, for the fortunes of a nation.”

Since Arthur is on the scene first, Lancelot must share some strong bond with Guinevere in order to draw her away from Arthur—unless the Arthur-Guinevere bond isn’t that strong to begin with, as in Wolf.  If we idealize Lancelot and Guinevere’s romance, we have to push Arthur away.

There’s a strong impulse to rescue the love story somehow.  We have three characters, each of whom we love and admire, trapped in this untenable situation.  We don’t want any of them to lose out, but someone has to.

So we get retellings that pare down the triangle.  In The Road to Avalon, Arthur and Morgan are the real romance; it doesn’t matter if Guinevere seeks solace elsewhere (except for political reasons).  In “First Knight,” Arthur is too old for Guinevere; after his inevitable death, Lancelot and Guinevere seem to be left free to marry.  “King Arthur” ends early, in terms of the overall myth, and skips the entire triangular problem.  Arthur and Guinevere marry at the end in a traditional romantic consummation, and Lancelot remains a minor character.

Moreover, if we choose as our main character someone other than the Big Three—one of the numerous other knights or ladies of the Arthurian court—the possibilities for love stories are endless.

The Holy Grail (Indiana Jones)The Holy Grail.  It’s hard to know what to make of the Holy Grail as a storytelling hub.  The Grail’s religious origins (although they are subject to dispute by some literary historians) may cause this part of the story to be bypassed entirely by those writers who prefer to dodge the Christian aspects of the Arthuriad.  White introduces the Grail quest rather ignobly as a distraction to keep the knights busy when there are no wars for them to fight.

Nonetheless, the mythic resonances of this ultimate quest MacGuffin have let it play a role in a surprising number of modern treatments—from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” to “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”—even where, as in the last example, the Arthurian tales are not otherwise involved.  For those who want an air of mystery and the numinous, rather than just clashing swords, the Grail is a natural choice.

Key Themes

Finally, the Arthuriad carries a number of themes of lasting interest.  These themes can also draw storytellers to the court of Camelot.

Knights of the Round Table (Excalibur)True companions.  For Western culture, Arthur’s Round Table knights may be the archetypal example of the tight-knit group of comrades fighting together for the right.  The basic story also includes some inversions of this band-of-brothers relationship—betrayals of several kinds—but that only serves to make the ideal seem more dramatic and memorable.  The Round Table is explicitly portrayed in “First Knight” and (without the table) in “King Arthur.”  It’s satirized, yet mourned, in White.  It does not play a major role in Wolf’s version.  But if an author wants to invoke the ideal of comradeship to the death, Arthur’s court is as likely a touchstone as the Three Musketeers or Robin Hood’s woodland band.

Chivalry.  The Arthurian knights represent the archetype of the ideal of chivalry.  Now, our era has a love-hate relationship with this notion.  We frequently prefer to satirize or criticize the ideals that were held up as models for the Arthurian knights.  Yet there remains a certain appeal to what TV Tropes calls Old-School Chivalry, a less literal version that can turn up in cases as varied as Captain America and “Kate and Leopold.”  These later varieties look back to the hazy memory of a medieval ideal that we associate with Arthur’s court.

Civilization is at stake.  Almost all versions of the tale depict Arthur as standing in some sense for the defense of imperiled civilization against the chaotic forces that threaten it.  The opposition may be literal, as in The Road to Avalon, where Arthur leads armies against the invading Saxons.  Or it may be more subtle, as when The Once and Future King shows Arthur striving to achieve the rule of law as a principle to contain the depredations of warlords.  Not Might makes Right, but Right makes Might, protecting the weak from the strong, ordinary people from the powerful:  this is the chivalric ideal Arthur pursues under the tutelage of Merlyn.

You could call it civilization.  What I meant by civilization when I invented it, was simply that people ought not to take advantage of weakness—not violate maidens, and rob widows, and kill a man when he was down.  People ought to be civil.  (Book Two, chapter 9)

The most poignant aspect of the Arthurian tale is that he achieves this ideal, for a fleeting moment—an island of light in an age of darkness—yet it fails.  The Round Table is broken, Camelot goes down in war and betrayal, Arthur does not found a virtuous dynasty.  This chiaroscuro of success and failure has a dramatic appeal that is hard for a storyteller to resist.

CamelotCamelot falls.  And yet, the story does not quite end in despair.  Arthur may die—but he is not entirely lost; he will somehow return.  In White’s touching ending, Arthur hands on the story itself, the memory of Camelot, to a young page named Tom—Tom Malory.  The ideal remains an ideal, and we are reassured that someday Arthur and the ideals he champions will reawaken.

It is no wonder that this kind of ambiguous, yet hopeful, ending attracts storytellers.  It attracts readers too.  All but the most hardened cynics would like to look forward to such a return.  Arthur’s story, like Arthur himself, never quite dies.

Arthurian Variations (Part I)

A Multitude of Arthurs

Sword in stone, in forestA few months ago I mentioned that the tales of King Arthur and his court—the Arthuriad—make up one of the most adaptable mythologies of all.  We can take a look at some of these variations (Part I), and follow up by considering what makes these legends so endlessly fascinating and malleable (Part II).

Wikipedia hosts two separate pages that enumerate versions of the Arthuriad:  List of works based on Arthurian legends and List of media based on Arthurian legend.  Tendrils of the Arthurian tree reach into such distant nooks as “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” which relies centrally on the Grail legend.

And new branches keep sprouting:  a new film version is coming out from Warner Bros. in 2017.  Even Tolkien worked on one, which I blush to admit I haven’t read:  The Fall of Arthur (composed in the 1930s, published 2013).  The introduction to my copy of The Mabinogion sums it up:  Arthur “is at the centre of British story.”  (Tr. Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, Everyman’s Library, 1949, 1974, p. xxv.)

History of the Myth

The Arthuriad grew from many sources.  A number of originally unconnected legends were gradually brought together under one roof—one reason there’s such a plenitude of material in the legendry.  A few brief mentions of Arthur in medieval histories gave rise to tales and poems in England, in France, and in Wales.  Writers like Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory assembled these various tales into more or less connected narratives.

The resulting mythology is the central part of the “Matter of Britain”—one of the three subjects that the medievals considered of paramount importance for literary development, along with the “Matter of France” (tales of Charlemagne and his court) and the “Matter of Rome” (the ancient myths that focused on the Trojan War and its ramifications).

It would take a scholarly treatise to deal with this history, not a blog post, even if I were qualified to write such an account.  Here I just want to note a few of the more interesting variations I’ve come across.

The High Road and the Low Road

I like to divide treatments of the Arthuriad into “high road” and “low road” versions.  On the high road we find the kind of setting that we usually think of in connection with the mythical Round Table:  knights in plate mail, ladies in silks and satins, magic from Merlin to the Green Knight round every corner.  This is Malory’s version, which reflected the customs and cultural level of Malory’s own time, rather than the historical setting in which Arthur was supposed to be placed.

The low road takes us to adaptations that hew more closely to actual history.  Here the writer seeks to make an Arthurian chronicle compatible with what we know of the real fifth or sixth century.  Magic and mysticism are minimized, and naturalistic explanations may be given for paranatural features of the original legends, such as the Sword in the Stone.  Contemporary retellings generally prefer the low road, grittier and less idealized than the plate-mail versions.

On the High Road

The high-fantasy Arthur is exemplified by Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur), which holds a central place:  to quote Charles Williams in The Figure of Arthur (p. 246), “it is Malory’s book which is for English readers the record book of Arthur and of the Grail.”  Traditional versions, particularly in the movies, tend to track Malory—at least in part, because no single novel or movie can possibly touch on the vast trove of material in Le Morte d’Arthur.

The trouble is that Malory is hard to read.  The language is archaic, and the mode of storytelling is far removed from contemporary styles.  Malory spends inordinate amounts of time on things like catalogues of knights at a tournament, and less than we would expect on characters’ thoughts and motivations.  We are thus inclined to search for a version more accessible to the modern reader.

The Once and Future King book coverA leading candidate is T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.  I grew up with White and still think of his as the canonical version.  It generated two popular movies—Lerner & Loewe’s musical “Camelot,” and Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone.”

Personally, I’m not pleased with either of those dramatic offspring.  The treatment of the main characters in “Camelot”is terrible (at least in the movie version), and “The Sword in the Stone” is Disneyfied in the bad sense, written down and trivialized.

There’s a different problem with the book itself:  The Once and Future King is very nearly a spoof of the Arthuriad.  White does a very good job with the main characters, but he fills the book with deliberate anachronisms and doesn’t take the actual quests and missions of the knights very seriously.  He keeps poking fun at Malory’s text.  The spoofery is often justified, and generally good fun.  But it does make White’s fanciful “high road” version a secondary rendering—parasitic, in a sense, on the original—and not really a good candidate for a ‘centric’ version.  (Not to mention the oddity of Part V, the “Book of Merlyn,” which was not published until after White’s death and conflicts in tone and substance, to my mind, with the main novel.)

John Steinbeck began a treatment that can be found under the title The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.  This might have been a candidate for a canonical modern version, if Steinbeck had ever completed it.  The book starts as a quasi-translation of Malory, but starts to develop more independently as it goes along.  It didn’t get very far, however, before Steinbeck abandoned it—perhaps because he hadn’t decided whether to keep diverging from his source material.

First Knight movie posterOn the screen, the 1995 film “First Knight,” with Sean Connery and Richard Gere, may be the best modern example of the high-road approach.  The main plot of the story is the tragic love story of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, though in this iteration Lancelot and Guinevere are left alive and apparently free to marry at Arthur’s death—an example of how those who favor romantic happy endings try to sort out the central romantic triangle.  Along with some gritty realism, the film does give us an idealized Camelot, shown more straightforwardly than in most modern adaptations.

On the Low Road

1981’s “Excalibur” may have started the trend toward more realistic versions in the movies.  Based purely on Malory, according to Wikipedia, the movie includes more explicit violence and more primitive settings than in “First Knight” or “Camelot.”  Nonetheless, “Excalibur” does incorporate the Grail theme and the mystical notion of the Fisher-King.

King Arthur movie posterA more recent example of the low-road movie is “King Arthur.”  Here Arthur is a Roman warleader, upholding the last of the fading Roman civilization in Britain, and Guinevere is a Celtic warrior maiden.  In this version, Lancelot dies (without real romantic entanglement) and the movie ends with Arthur and Guinevere’s marriage, stopping short of all the difficult tragic material later in the legend.

On the book side, the low road may be represented by Mary Stewart’s quintet that begins with The Crystal Cave.  In one classic example of a non-magical explanation for a traditional scene, Merlin leaves the sword Caliburn for many years in a cave where dripping water gradually deposits a limestone crust over the blade, from which Arthur breaks it free when he recovers the sword—a neat nod to Malory’s magical sword in the stone.

More Exotic Variants

It really gets interesting when authors start tugging and pulling at the legend to develop stories that depart more strikingly from the Malory-based legends.

Road to Avalon coverOne of my favorites is The Road to Avalon (1988), by Joan Wolf.  This novel takes a low-road approach, with almost nothing in the way of magic or the paranormal.  Here again Arthur is primarily a warleader, Comes Brittaniarum.  But he is also fiercely dedicated to preserving against barbarism the civilized culture represented by Rome—an aspect we shall have occasion to revisit.

Arthur’s task is to unite the British people against the Saxons.  (These Saxons are the invading enemy at this time, but they’ve become the defenders against barbarism by the time of King Alfred, and the underdogs by Robin Hood’s period.  British history is complicated.)

Wolf’s character treatment is what’s most interesting.  Here Morgan (usually “Morgan le Fay,” portrayed as a dangerous fairy or sorceress) is the female lead and Arthur’s real true love.  Gwenhwyfar is sympathetic, if a little shallow, but she never did have much more than a dynastic connection with Arthur, which makes her unfaithfulness with Bedwyr (this version’s Lancelot) more palatable.  In other words, the traditional romantic triangle is skewed—to the good, in this case.

In Wolf,  Mordred, usually the arch-enemy, is a likable boy; Agravaine is the real villain.  There’s a Round Table, for the right reason (to make those who sit at it equals, with no “head of the table” precedence).  But there are no knights in the plate-mail sense.  Religion hardly plays a role, much less the Grail.  But the story is very satisfying, and is followed by two sequels, one set in the generation after Arthur and the other taking up the life of Alfred.

There are lots more.  Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon is a feminist version, again with Morgaine as the heroine.  Stephen Lawhead’s five-book Pendragon Cycle starts out in Atlantis—from which we can see how eccentric the plotline has become.  The Last Legion (both book and movie) again stress the Roman connection, with the last emperor of Rome traveling to Britain to found the dynasty that will produce Arthur.  And of course, in the slapstick comedy category, we have Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The Future King

I’ve seen surprisingly few stories that build on the tradition of Arthur as the “once and future king”—rex quondam rexque futurus.  Arthur is supposed to return; but the tales generally leave him ambiguously ensconced in Avalon.  In C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, we do see a revived Merlin in the present day, and we’re told in Perelandra that Arthur waits on Venus to come back to Earth for a final battle—but we don’t see that in the stories.

Tim Powers’ oddball The Drawing of the Dark has an eccentric return for Arthur—focusing mostly on beer.  Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry promotes a resolution of the Arthurian tragedy that takes place in another world, but draws in characters from our contemporary world.  I remember fondly, for some reason, a 1970 children’s book by Tom McGowen, Sir MacHinery, in which an experimental robot is perceived by a group of present-day Scottish Brownies as an armored knight—the crate is stenciled MACHINERY—where the inventor happens to bear the name Simon Arthur Smith.

But I haven’t run across as many stories about the return of Arthur as one might expect.  Some interesting potential there . . .

The Next Step

This spate of examples illustrates the wide range of variations to which the Arthurian legends are susceptible.  What makes them so adaptable, and so attractive to storytellers of all kinds?  We’ll take those questions up in the next episode.